What Is the Difference Between a Paralegal Certificate Program and a Paralegal Degree?

What Is the Difference Between a Paralegal Certificate Program and a Paralegal Degree

When examining the difference between a paralegal associate’s degree vs. certificate program, it’s important to understand that there are definitely distinct differences between the two. The time and cost that it takes to complete the program are often two primary considerations. A certificate program typically costs less, can take from six months to two years to complete, and is offered by vocational schools, community colleges, and some universities. However, it should be noted that some certificate programs require the student to already hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree upon enrollment.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal, also called a legal assistant in some settings, is a person who possesses legal skills and training. This legal professional usually works under the supervision of an attorney or multiple attorneys in a firm. As an analogy, some people have said that paralegals are to lawyers what nurses are to doctors.

Paralegals may work for law offices, colleges and universities, big corporations, government agencies, and other organizations that require the paralegal’s skills and education, according to Fremont College.

What is a Typical Day Like for a Paralegal?

What the paralegal does each day depends on that legal professional’s training, education, specialization, and experience. Sometimes, they provide administrative support to their places of employment. At other times, they actually take on some of the lawyer’s workload. Some paralegals do this because they also have some legal skills. This is advantageous for a couple of reasons. First, it allows the attorney to concentrate on much more involved legal work. Second, it saves clients money. Although paralegals make a more than comfortable living in many cases, their time usually gets billed at a lower rate than the attorney’s time does.

Here are some examples of common tasks paralegals may perform during the course of their workday. They draft legal pleadings and correspondence, as well as discoveries and document responses. Paralegals may spend time checking the facts of a case or performing legal research, including consulting computer databases.

Client contact and interviews also count as an important task the paralegal must perform. Legal assistants may also analyze and summarize documents. Case management may fall under the paralegal’s jurisdiction, too. Trial preparation, attending legal functions and client representation (if permitted by law where they work) count as some of the daily activities they may perform.

Additionally, some paralegals choose to specialize just as lawyers do. Their passions may include tort law or litigation.

The tasks paralegals are expected to complete may influence the decisions they make about their educations. For example, if they decide to specialize in litigation, the question of whether to get a paralegal associate’s degree vs. certificate may come into play, particularly if they believe a degree program will help them more than a certificate program will.

The Advantages of Being a Paralegal

Like the medical profession, the legal profession has plenty of opportunities for those who’d like to work in this field. While lawyers may get a great deal of the notoriety, they represent only a fraction of the professionals who actually work in the legal field.

Certainly, paralegals play a big role in the day-to-day runnings of the legal profession. Many people who work as paralegals may have even considered going to law school to become lawyers, but discovered, after doing some research, that becoming a paralegal better suited them. For one thing, paralegals require less schooling than attorneys do. Because the paralegal field requires less schooling (that also happens to cost far less than schooling required for a Juris Doctor degree), these legal professionals enter the job market a lot sooner than their attorney counterparts. Both an associate’s degree and a certificate program require less than two years to complete. Most lawyers must complete seven or eight years of higher education before they’re ready to begin practicing law.

Related: What is a Juris Doctor?

This basically means that the paralegal starts working at least five years sooner than his or her attorney counterparts. Paralegals make a high hourly wage. Granted, they don’t make as much as attorneys do, but they still earn a good income. What’s more, much of their income goes in their pockets because the cost of the paralegal degree is less than the cost of the law school degree. They pay less in student loans, which means they have more disposable income after they graduate.

Another reason why so many people love the paralegal profession is that it gives them the opportunity to pursue a career that’s intellectually stimulating. Depending on their assignments and expertise, they may delve more in case law or do research on modern legal trends. They may also spend time working with clients to prepare them for court. Doing so may require them to break down complicated legal terms. Paralegals often become subject matter experts.

Additionally, many paralegals join the legal profession because they want to help people who are in trouble. Their jobs allow them to do good for people each day, and for many aspiring paralegals, this counts as a definite perk of the profession. The abused child or the emotionally distraught personal injury victim will get support and solace from the paralegals working on their cases.

Finally, some paralegals are actually interested in going to law school eventually. For those who are still on the fence about it, becoming a paralegal gives them insight into the legal world. If they like their jobs as legal assistants, they can stay where they are. If they feel like they want to tackle more, then they can consider pursuing an advanced legal degree.

Types of Paralegal Degrees

If an individual decides to seek a degree in paralegal studies, the type of degree to pursue will need to be considered. An associate’s degree takes 2 years to complete and is the most pursued besides certificate programs among aspiring paralegals. Bachelor’s degrees take 4 years but are not offered in paralegal studies as often as associate’s degrees. Often the bachelor’s degree is actually in another related subject, like criminal justice, and the paralegal studies portion of their degree is a minor.

After working in the profession for a time, some paralegals find they love the legal profession. These professionals would be good candidates for more advanced legal degrees. For those with time and money, pursuing a master’s degree in paralegal studies can lead to a strong advantage in the job market. Master’s-level degree programs typically take 2 years to complete. It is wise to be certain ahead of time if the program being entered is accredited. The American Bar Association has a list of accredited schools and programs for paralegal studies.

Some universities, like George Washington University, offer a Master of Professional Studies in Paralegal Studies. This degree gives graduate students a background in American jurisprudence. Students also get training in legal research and writing, including coursework in advanced legal writing. Master-level paralegal students also take coursework in contract law, intellectual property law, litigation, business, and international law. Many of these graduate-level programs require their students to complete a practicum, which gives the students professional experience in the legal field.

Those who wish to delve even further into the legal profession may opt for law school. Such pursuits allow these students to learn about constitutional law or environmental law or even patent law. According to the Princeton Review, some of these law school programs are part of a joint degree program. These degrees combine two advanced degrees, like an MBA and a JD. Nowadays, it’s even possible to earn a JD online, which opens up a paralegal’s academic possibilities.  Paralegals who go the law school route must also prepare for the LSAT (Law School Aptitude Test). Being admitted to law school won’t happen without it. Many courses exist to help pre-law students prepare for this test.

Traits Great Paralegals Possess

It takes a certain temperament to work in the legal profession, and those who thrive in this environment often possess similar traits. Legal assistants are highly trained individuals from whom a lot is expected.

Those who wish to pursue careers as legal assistants should possess a sharp eye for detail. These professionals stay on top of their attorneys’ calendars, trial dates, and client information. For example, if a client has not sent the attorney’s office some vital information, it’s often the paralegal who must track it down. Those who miss details may make costly legal mistakes.

It’s also important that legal assistants are organized, which is a related trait to the one in the previous paragraph. Often it’s the paralegal who keeps things running. Good organizational skills help to make this happen. For many, this may be easier said than done, however, because paralegals get interrupted often during the day. Because of this, they must have the ability to quickly refocus on the tasks at hand.

The best paralegals communicate well, too. They spend much of their day sending emails to clients or chatting with them on the phone. Communication between clients, paralegals, attorneys, and the courts must be clear, and the best paralegal degree programs teach their students how to communicate effectively. Degree programs often require their students to take coursework in legal writing and communication.

Additionally, legal assistants who make a difference possess a large amount of kindness and compassion. It is important to remember that those who seek the services of an attorney are often going through difficulties. Along the same lines, the best paralegals hold themselves to high ethical standards.

Finally, paralegals don’t work alone. They are members of a team. As such, they must have good people skills. Ironically, they must also have the ability to work independently. Truly, the legal assistant’s job can be a balancing act between these two extremes. Those who are flexible in their approach to work usually fare the best in the legal work environment.

Certificate vs. Certification

paralegal associate's degree vs. certificateNot only should the difference between a paralegal certificate vs. a paralegal degree be discussed, but the difference between a paralegal certificate and certification is also an important distinction to make. Holding a paralegal certificate simply verifies that the person has successfully completed a paralegal education program. This certificate of completion is issued to the student who is then referred to as a certificated paralegal. In contrast, a certified paralegal has successfully completed an exam issued by a certifying organization. The student is then granted formal recognition for having met the established requirements of the issuing organization. In addition to meeting the education requirements, prior work experience as a paralegal may be required as well as passing the exam before receiving certification.

Which Choice Will Land a Better Job?

An important consideration when choosing between pursuing a paralegal associate’s degree vs. certificate is what it will mean in terms of finding employment? Holding a degree does not necessarily ensure landing a better or higher-paying job. Many individuals who complete certificate programs become successful and highly regarded paralegals. While a degree is usually better, law firms typically don’t pay higher salaries because a person has a degree. An individual’s experience is what more often determines salary.

What Kind of Salaries Do Paralegals Make?

Salaries for paralegals can vary, depending on the paralegal’s education level, how long the paralegal has worked in the legal field, and with what kind of professional specialties the paralegal has experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals make almost $25 an hour or almost $52,000 per year. The BLS further projects that demand for paralegals will grow by about 12% until the year 2028.

In general, those who work for the federal government make the most money. They get paid just over $67,000 per year. Those who work in the finance and insurance industries make just over $64,000 per year. Legal assistants who work in local government make the median: $51,000 per year. Others who work in legal services make just below that at almost $50,000 per year. Finally, those who are employed by their state’s government receive almost $57,000 per annum in salary.

All of that being said, the numbers above represent averages. Many factors influence a legal assistant’s salary. For example, senior paralegals with seven years or more of experience can make over $100,000 per year if they work in mid-sized firms. (These businesses would be law firms that employ between 35 and 75 lawyers.) Those who have four to six years of experience take home about $78,000 per year if they work in a mid-sized firm. Entry-level paralegals with three years of experience or less can make up to $61,000 per year if they work at a mid-sized firm.

Additionally, senior paralegals who secure jobs in a corporate setting can make upwards of $102,000 or more per year if they work for a large company. (A large company, in this case, means that the company brings in more than $250 million per year.) Mid-career paralegals with four to six years of experience will make almost $80,000 per year in a large company, while entry-level paralegals working at the same size firm make upwards of $63,000 per annum.

The region where a legal assistant works makes a difference as well. Paralegals who work on the east coast make almost $60,000 a year, while those who work on the west coast make around $71,000 per year. Those working and living in the Southwest come in third with a salary of almost $60,000 per year, closely followed by those in the Great Lakes region, who make $58,000 per year. Plains States’ paralegals bring home around $57,000 per annum, while those working in the Rocky Mountains can expect just over $60,000 per year.

It is additionally useful to point out that a paralegal’s salary only represents a portion of the compensation that this professional makes. Compensation packages for legal assistants may also include health and life insurance, paid vacation, parking privileges, paid professional dues, and assistance with seminar and conference fees. Other perks could include health club memberships, maternity leave benefits, tuition reimbursement, mileage reimbursement, childcare, and more. Finally, a paralegal’s place of employment may offer 401(k) or some other type of retirement benefits.

The Bottom Line

In considering a paralegal certificate vs. a paralegal degree, individuals who are anxious to get to work right away should probably pursue a certificate. It will always be possible to pursue a degree later on if desired. For such individuals, it should be understood that credits earned through a certificate program are not always transferable to a degree program. For those seeking a certificate who think they may want to go further, later on, it might be wise to consider this factor ahead of time. When it comes down to it, the choice to pursue a paralegal associate’s degree vs. certificate depends on one question: “Which one is best for me?”

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